‘Strong Towns’ fans flames of revolutionary pragmatism

Chuck Marohn and Aaron Brown discuss issues in “Dig Deep,” a podcast by Northern Community Radio. Marohn’s new book is “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.” (PHOTO: Heidi Holtan)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Those who read “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity” by Charles L. Marohn, Jr., a new book published by Wiley, might at first be overwhelmed by Marohn’s bad news. America’s cities are insolvent. And though he doesn’t mention them by name, his metrics would certainly implicate our own Hibbing, Chisholm, and all the towns of the Iron Range.

Our towns will become more and more broke over time using current fiscal and development practices. Lacking corrective action, and even perhaps with corrective action, we will one day be forced to abandon expensive infrastructure out of fiscal necessity. Moreover, it will be impossible for economic development efforts to change this. It’s inevitable.

But a open-minded reader will also realize something amazing in “Strong Towns.” These same cities — yes Hibbing, even and especially its most blighted neighborhoods — hold value that we don’t appreciate. Generations of assumptions about what make a successful town have warped our thinking. We possess capacity to change this and enjoy happier, more fruitful lives in towns that serve us even better than they do now.

That’s the defining message of “Strong Towns” and Strong Towns, the nonprofit organization that Chuck Marohn leads. His work takes him all over the world, speaking and advising cities.

I first met Chuck years ago through my work at Northern Community Radio, the local independent public station based in Grand Rapids. We both became local versions of talking heads, people who spewed their opinions into microphones. Today we co-host the podcast and radio show “Dig Deep,” which explores the practical realities of liberal and conservative policies in Northern Minnesota.

As he mentions in the book, we both prefer not to focus on our differences, but on our most critical point of agreement: local action is most important.

Marohn details this in his book, offering proclamations that many will find deeply challenging, troubling, even sacrilegious.

“Any community serious about their own financial stability is going to take the obvious first step and stop adding more liability,” writes Marohn in “Strong Towns.” “There is no reason for any North American city to build another foot of roadway, or put in another length of pipe, to serve new property anywhere. Our infrastructure is maxed out; we’re done expanding and, in fact, I anticipate nearly all our cities contracting their obligations to some extent.”

We’ll pause here to allow local economic developers to wipe up the coffee they just spat.

Marohn thinks the math that cities use to figure out cost benefits is all wrong. When developers propose new projects — like a housing development, industrial or commercial park — those projects are listed as assets and their cost of construction the only liability. Marohn argues that a city’s only asset is the wealth generated by its entire tax base. Everything else — the maintenance, repair and staffing of infrastructure — is a long term liability. In this most towns across America, whether they are poor or affluent, urban or rural, find themselves deep in the red.

Marohn demonstrates that building a new box store on the edge of town produces less wealth for the community than a block of old buildings, each with one, two or more taxpaying businesses within. Suburban-style developments produce less tax revenue, require more maintenance, and generate fewer “spinoff” jobs, even though developers tout them for the opposite reasons.

Meantime, communities that currently draw very little investment often quietly outproduce the flashy, expensive development on the freeway. With regular attention paid to poor, low-cost interior neighborhoods Marohn argues that cities become more attractive. The value of those neighborhoods would increase, along with the home owners’ desire to improve their properties.

From this would come private investment in new businesses to serve the happier, more valuable neighborhood. Extrapolating this to Hibbing, empty storefronts and vacant lots on First Avenue and Howard Street would become the best targets for new developments, all of which would come for less expense than city efforts to build up the outer Beltline or Highway 37.

This sort of action is fundamentally local which Marohn argues will require a uprising of sorts by elected and community leaders in our towns.

“State and federal officials frequently express their reluctance to turn over decision-making to local officials they view as incompetent, ignorant, or worse,” writes Marohn. “They fail to recognize how turning city councils into glorified dog-catchers, by simplifying their authority and degree of action, Congress and state legislatures have created the conditions where the most competent, innovative, and dynamic local leaders tend to stay far away from city hall.”

He doesn’t think top-down leadership will ever ask local governments to do more. But they’ll need to to get out of this predicament. Yes, local governments will make mistakes, he reminds, and will encounter failure. But the process of innovation requires such things, and can best be corrected locally.

“By remaking local government to focus on the broad creation of wealth, local leaders will develop the capacity to assert their own competence. America needs that to happen,” concludes Marohn.

Chuck Marohn has done something remarkable here; he’s presented a practical response to the decline we see in our towns that reads like a revolutionary screed. He writes himself that implementing his ideas will be very hard for cities to do. However, I would challenge every city councilor, local leader and citizen of the Iron Range to read this book with an open mind. We should also ask what the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources can do to empower Range communities, rather than forcing them to conform to the status quo. To quote an old t-shirt, we need to question everything.

Marohn would argue, and I would agree, that we must not think of what our Range towns don’t have, but to think of what we do have that could be made better, more inviting, and more secure.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. John Powers says

    Aaron –
    First, I am a professional land use and community planner with over 40 years of experience, nearly all of it in northeast Minnesota. That doesn’t mean my opinion counts for anything more than the next person’s but it does lend some context to my comments.
    Second, I concur with Marohn’s conclusion that community’s need to focus on redeveloping within the footprint of their currently serviced land area.
    However, I think Marohn’s analysis falls short in several regards. I haven’t read his book but I have listened to one of his presentations and engaged in some back and forth with him over the years. The following is based on that background and not the book.
    Marohn’s earlier analysis was based solely on the amount of property tax generated by development and by that measure his conclusion that big box development doesn’t pay its way probably holds up. Although, you can add that single family detached residential development doesn’t pay its way either. Nor does a new city park or trail. Nor, most definitely, a new church or other non-profit tax exempt structure.
    What his prior analysis lacked was the inclusion of sales tax which is a revenue stream communities increasingly are using to pay for general government. Does the analysis in his book include sales tax in the calculation? My gut tells me that the typical big box store generates far more sales tax than does the comparable square footage of commercial space in the downtown and likely more than offset any deficit in property tax.
    In pushing for redevelopment of downtowns versus permitting additional big box development Marohn seems to assume that an individual small community can dictate what the big box store’s business model should be. A small town may keep a big box store from locating within the community but it is essentially powerless to change its business model. That is, community X isn’t going to persuade a, say, Menards, to break its 100,000 plus square feet of store into 10-15 small shops (one for electrical supply, one for plumbing and heating, one for flooring, one for paint, one for appliances, one for windows and doors, one for lumber, etc. etc.) to be situated within as many individual storefronts on Main Street. Nor, by the way, as per Marohn’s apparent preferred alternative can a small town find the entrepreneurs and investors to create those 10-15 stores as individual enterprises. Would be nice but it isn’t going to happen.
    This isn’t, by the way, a defense of big box stores (or even the now ubiquitous “small box” Dollar General stores). Like Marohn I would love to see downtowns refilled with vibrant, economically viable, locally owned retail stores and services. But I’m not holding my breath. There is an economic reality to modern day retail that individual towns are not going to change.
    But, back to Marohn’s core conclusion that communities should strive to keep new development within the boundaries of existing service areas, this should be universally supported. I can foresee a time in the not too distant future when cities, townships, and counties will be hard pressed to maintain their infrastructure networks, especially roads, forcing them to not only consider but to act upon the need to reduce quality (e.g., replace paved roads with gravel) and then actual mileage.
    As always, thanks Aaron for offering thought provoking columns to push the region into thinking about the things that need to be thought about.

  2. Thanks for the input John – I don’t have a municipality planning background, but I also attended a Strong Towns presentation a few years back, and sort of had similar takeaways.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.